Professor Lydia Wevers ONZM was an academic, public intellectual, writer, and voracious reader. She was fascinated and fascinating, finding intrigue in unlikely places. Her research provided intimate insight into New Zealand culture and a Victorian-era Wairarapa sheep station. A scholarship in her name, she hopes others might do the same. MARY ARGUE reports.
“We would walk up the hill rather than ride,” says Robyn Williams, leaning forward to scoop up a clear file from a scone-laden coffee table.
“It should have taken us five minutes, but it was always half an hour. We lingered, discussed, and debated ideas. We talked about who would become famous.” She smiles wryly. “Lydia was the obvious choice. It’s one of my fondest memories, discussing the wheres and why-fors. We solved the problems of the world struggling up that hill.”
She opens the folder, turning the pages carefully. Inside, is a collection of carefully cut newspaper clippings, each dedicated to one person, her friend – Lydia Wevers.
Williams and Wevers were intertwined from an early age. Growing up in Masterton in the 50s and 60s, they followed a similar trajectory from Manuka St to St Matthew’s Collegiate, before leaving Wairarapa for Wellington’s big city lights and university.
For many years they diverged, Wevers lapping the world, becoming an accomplished academic and researcher, before reuniting at the base of the Tararuas – the deep, irresistible tug of the open plains and rushing rivers bringing Wevers back.
The Wevers family arrived in the great Dutch migration to New Zealand, making waves when they landed in Masterton in 1953. “They had these thick, broad, European accents,” Williams recalls, which created instant intrigue among the handful of families on Manuka St.
In later interviews, Wevers expressed regret at distancing her heritage quite so fully, vividly recalling a turning point in 1954, while walking along Queen St. Her mother Joyce had turned to her, speaking in Dutch, in front of a group of children. Their stares made the four-year-old Wevers shrivel with embarrassment. “That was the end of Dutch-speaking. From that day, I became an emphatic Anglophone,” she said.
Her father, Bart Wevers, an architect, set to work at once designing a concrete and glass home in typical modernist style. The result was a two-storey house in a row of stucco bungalows, quite unlike anything Lansdowne had seen. In the kitchen sat an industrious potbelly stove and a yoghurt culture that captured the imagination of a five-year-old Williams.
It was a home that encouraged critical thinking. It burst with interesting conversation and above all, books. Wevers, the only girl of five children, was a “total bookworm”, says Williams, her parents trying, and often failing, to shoo her outside. In her essay On Reading, Wevers describes this obsession, that even to her, seemed beyond reason.
“I suffer from an illness”, she writes, “an illness which has no cure, no limit and no end. It’s compulsive, expensive, consuming and addictive, it fills my house and my life and my time — I refer of course to reading.”
But even in a home that ritualised reading, Wevers’ ability to devour books was exceptional. “All the kids read,” recalls her brother Maarten, “I read, but I didn’t read nearly as much as Lydia.”
On Friday nights the entire family would go into town, placing an order with the fish and chip shop before visiting Masterton’s Public Library, where, famously, Wevers struck a deal that allowed her to borrow 12 books at a time, instead of the usual two.
Back home, “steaming newspaper parcels in hand, we were allowed to go anywhere in the house with our new library books,” Wevers recalls, who often disappeared to a favourite nook beneath the coatrack.
Wevers’ fixation with reading and aptitude for humanities was fostered at St Matthew’s by those rarest of gems – a teacher that can connect. Wevers was lucky enough to have two – Helen Dashfield and Olive Sutherland.
They put her into orbit, says Maarten, encouraging a love of language and literature that led to a vocation. To no one’s surprise, she was appointed head girl. Wevers left Masterton, the only one in her year to attend university, and after graduating from Victoria University of Wellington [VUW] pursued a scholarship at St Anne’s College in Oxford.
A lectureship in Vic’s English department was followed by several years overseas, accompanying husband Alastair Bisley to diplomatic posts in Geneva, Brussels, and Sydney, while raising three children.
Bisley says it was in Brussels that Wevers began a rapid move towards New Zealand literature. “One thing that surprised me was how quickly she made that shift.
“She was already starting on anthologies of women’s writing before we arrived in Sydney.” Once there, Wevers began working at the university and collaborated with other academics on projects that reinforced her interest in Antipodean works.
But, it was upon the family’s return to New Zealand that her career really took off.
Professor Brigitte Bonisch-Brednich says it was during this time that Wevers’ renown as a scholar and public intellectual gained momentum. She became the director of VUW’s Stout Research Centre in 2001, a position she held for 16 years, building up a vibrant community at the institute until her retirement in 2017.
“She was simply an extraordinary person who had a knack for bringing people together,” Bonisch-Brednich says. She says Wevers was a mentor, “a wahine toa”, and a staunch supporter not only of the humanities, but all disciplines at the centre – from engineering to geography, business, and law, and of course, “her beloved literature”.
Here, Wevers’ interest in New Zealand literature and culture peaked.
“The question that drives my scholarly reading,” she once said, “is what it means to live in this country in this landscape and in this culture”.
That culminated in the widely celebrated Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World, an in-depth look at a Victorian-era farm near Masterton – Brancepeth Station.
Brancepeth, a 30,000-hectare sheep station settled by Pakeha farmers in the mid-1800s, was its own village. At its height it employed over 300 staff, and had a school and library onsite.
And it was this library that captured Wevers’ imagination. The 2000 book collection was transferred to VUW in the 1960s and largely forgotten until Wevers came across it 40 years later.
She was immediately enthralled, says Ed Beetham, a descendent of the original landowners who still lives in the historic homestead. Together, they worked on the 10-year project.
“She did all the reading and the research, and I knew where to look.”
The wear and tear on the books themselves fascinated her, Beetham says, describing the old cigarette butts, and shopping lists sandwiched between the pages of popular novels.
The artefacts were a window into the reader, an insight Wevers’ cherished. Most astonishing, Wevers said, was the marginalia [notes in the margins], which revealed “what someone thought about something as they were reading it”.
Of particular intrigue was the estate clerk and librarian, John Vaughan Miller, an erudite man with an acid tongue, whose bookkeeping went beyond the day-to-day minutiae.
“His in-jokes and aggrieved descriptions of the job build an intricate, though partial picture of the emotional, intellectual, social, and literary life of the Brancepeth community,” Wevers wrote in Reading on the Farm.
It was around this time, says Bisley, that the campaign to re-establish a base in Wairarapa began.
“I went down like a chocolate soldier. You can take the girl out of Wairarapa, but you can’t take Wairarapa out of the girl.”
He says the region became essential to Wevers’ intellectual life and wellbeing, with Brancepeth and subsequently Aratoi, enabling her to rebuild connections to the place.
“She was also an indefatigable walker and loved going to the pinnacles and honeycomb rock.
“As late as 2019 she was going to walk up Mt Holdsworth and went up Rocky Lookout in the last year of her life.
“She was not secretive about what she saw, but she wasn’t an abrasive person.
“She was generous and had an enormously wide acquaintance.
Lydia took her pleasures joyfully, and there were plenty of them.”
Bisley says the idea of establishing a Lydia Wevers Scholarship was not wholly unexpected. After her death in September last year, renowned author, Lloyd Jones called suggesting it.
“And we thought ‘yes, it would be a good idea,’ but it needed to be associated with the university and with the Stout Centre, which Lydia built up enormously.”
Bisley says he hopes the scholarship, $30,000 for one post-graduate student a year, will allow someone who might not have the means, take that first research step.
“It is to encourage research into Aotearoa-New Zealand,” he says, but its scope permits applications from students of any discipline.
Victoria University says $125,000 has been raised so far but hopes to reach its $600,000 target enabling it to be awarded in perpetuity. Maarten says the scholarship will continue his sister’s work, encouraging young people to be involved in academia.
“We want to keep up that amazing work, about the importance of reading, and learning and education.
“It’s about being very rigorous in the way you think about things, and about what it is to have a purpose.”
- To contribute to the Lydia Wevers Scholarship fund and support academic learning and research into New Zealand society, history and culture, visit: www.wgtn.ac.nz/engage/giving/donate/areas/donate-to-the-lydia-wevers-scholarship-in-new-zealand-studies